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Civil Unions Hold Promise For Fort Collins Couple

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(credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

(credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) – Tim Sagen and Ken Hoole woke up together May 8, 2012, in the bed they’ve shared for more than four decades expecting that Colorado would stand on the doorstep of legally recognizing their love before they slept again.

Instead, legislation to legally recognize civil unions between gay couples stalled.

The bill had just enough GOP support to pass in the Republican controlled House of Representatives, but the House Speaker at the time, Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, controlled the calendar and blocked the vote. Hoole and Sagen hold him responsible for the delay in passing civil unions legislation.

“Livid is a mild word for how angry we were,” Hoole said.

“That should have never happened,” said Sagen, who for most of his life was a registered Republican but left the party because of its hard-line stance on gays. “It takes your faith in the legislative process away. You can see from what happened that night how one individual determined what gets voted on and what doesn’t. That’s not OK.”

Life partners Sagen, 70, and Hoole, 77, followed the action online from their home in Fort Collins. The lone measure of satisfaction they took to bed that night was the chorus of vitriolic chants and boos that chased McNulty from the House floor.

The couple has grown accustomed to the mirage of expanded civil rights perpetually disappearing just as gay Americans reach out to clutch them, but this year in Colorado is different.

Voters dispatched the Republican majority from the House in November, relegating McNulty to a rank-and-file representative’s role. Sagen and Hoole revel in knowing that he is assured a front-row seat to the passage of civil unions this year.

Unlike the past two years, little nail-biting is expected this time around. The Senate already has passed civil unions, and it would pass in the House on the strength of its 38 cosponsors alone.

McNulty’s replacement, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, is the first openly gay man to attain that rank in the Colorado Legislature. Each of the past two years he sponsored civil unions legislation that died. Now he expects to preside over its passage sometime in March. This year’s civil unions bill faces its first House hearing by a committee on Thursday.

“It will pass,” Ferrandino said. “We feel very strongly that this will be the year.”

As proposed in Ferrandino’s bill, unwed gay and heterosexual couples who enter into civil unions could enjoy some legal protections now reserved for married couples. It addresses enduring relationships such as Hoole’s and Sagen’s as well as those that don’t last.

Provisions for dissolution of civil unions would establish legal framework for child support, parental visitation and financial responsibility to a former partner beyond the life of a relationship. For those in lasting relationships, the legislation would enable partners to make medical decisions for each other, forge a chain of property succession through inheritance and establish default protections for unmarried couples’ shared property in ways currently not on the books in Colorado.

At Hoole’s and Sagen’s ages, the practical side of a civil unions law is weighted toward planning for the last years of their lives.

“The ability to live together in a nursing home is something we’ve talked about,” Sagen said. “If we got to the situation where we couldn’t live in our own home anymore, I don’t want to be separated just because we need that kind of care.”

The ability to protect exempt property from attachment and garnishment that married couples in Colorado currently enjoy also would be welcome.

“If I had a big medical bill that built up, they could take the house if I died because it’s titled in my name,” Sagen said. “That would leave Ken without a place to live. This would prevent that. It speaks to some of the issues you hope you’re never faced with, but you never know as you get older.”

Sagen and Hoole hired a lawyer years ago to set up wills and powers of attorney that grant them many of the rights that would be automatic under civil unions. Hundreds of dollars later, they have built a safety net for each other, but even that is tenuous.

They carry most of the documents with them at all times after hearing stories about gays denied access to a partner while they were receiving medical care for a health emergency or accident.

“We always live with uncertainty about whether those documents will be honored,” Sagen said. “Soon, we know they’ll have to be honored.”

Hoole and Sagen got a civil union in Vermont on Sept. 21, 2001. Colorado’s proposed legislation would recognize it legally.

While they entered a civil union on a whim, both say it was not a frivolous act.

“By that point, we were pretty sure we knew what we were doing,” Sagen said. They have been together since 1967, when they met in a gay bar in Seattle. They have lived together in Fort Collins for more than 40 years.

They knew their civil union in Vermont was not recognized in Colorado, but took the step as an affirmation of their love and commitment to each other. Hoole compared it to the small commitment ceremony they had in 1970 that also meant nothing in the eyes of the law, but was significant in the hearts of both men.

“You need to somehow be able to affirm your relationship,” Sagen said.

Since their civil union, Vermont has legalized gay marriage. Sagen and Hoole considered marrying, but decided not to after learning they would first have to dissolve their civil union. They asked a government clerk versed in the Vermont law what they stood to gain legally by marrying.

“What is the significance of that other than using the word ‘marriage’ as far as the legal benefits are concerned?” Sagen said. “He said, ‘Absolutely none.'”

That recognition and the legal benefits contained in Colorado’s proposed civil unions law stir opponents to describe it as marriage masquerading by another name. They contend it’s an end-around to a voter-approved constitutional amendment in Colorado that defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman, or at least a step toward gay marriage.

As those perspectives have prevailed at the Capitol and delayed adoption of civil unions, Ferrandino said the lost time has real-life consequences.

“A lot of people said it didn’t need to be done last year because it’s not a pressing issue,” he said. “There are people in Colorado with real-life issues that with each passing year feel the impact of the delay. We don’t have to look much further than Sen. Pat Steadman to see how putting it off one year affected committed couples in this state.”

Steadman, D-Denver, has cosponsored civil unions with Ferrandino each of the past three years. His longtime partner died of cancer last year after the defeat of civil unions.

Hoole and Sagen see Colorado’s passage of civil unions as a watershed occasion in the history of U.S. gay rights, which they’ve watched unfold before them.

“Secrecy was a really big issue when we first met,” Sagen said. “You couldn’t really be open about your relationship except with other gay people and maybe a few select straight friends.”

Otherwise, jobs and even personal safety was at risk, Hoole said, noting that society’s attitude has been slow to change, but it’s changing.

“Slowly, glacially, we’re getting there,” he said.

Over the years, perceived injustices mobilized radical factions within the gay rights movement and everyday guys who love other guys.

“There’s room for both of those sides,” Sagen said. “We probably wouldn’t be where we are if there hadn’t been the real activists out there making noise. The other side of it is those of us who quietly live our lives not in secret anymore.

“Now people know who’s gay more than they used to. They say, ‘Gosh, I’ve got family members that are gay. I’ve got good friends that live next door that are gay. They should have the same rights everybody else does.”

Relative to previous decades, gay rights have advanced at warp speed in recent years, with more public figures openly embracing their sexual orientation, President Barack Obama emphasizing the issue during his inaugural address and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper twice calling for the passage of civil unions in his State of the State speeches.

“We would have never believed that we would have come this far in our lifetimes,” Hoole said. “We want to be there in person for that moment to see the civil unions bill pass.”

- By PATRICK MALONE, The Coloradoan

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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